Dubai: Long before Dubai’s hospitality scene became a lucrative playground for Michelin star chefs, there was a bustling community that would travel across oceans to sample a humble meal whipped up by Kaku Maharaj.
The UAE pioneer, whose real name was Murlidhar Parmanand Joshi and built his humble restaurant empire in the back alleys of an old, rustic Dubai, died on January 4 at the age of 82, Gulf News can confirm. His death comes as big blow to the Indian communities that have seen generations walk through his doors and rarely left without a warm meal bringing some comfort.
Kaku Maharaj was considered a pioneer in the Thattai Bhatia community, while setting up Dubai’s oldest restaurant — Joshi Restaurant and Café in Bur Dubai. He leaves behind his wife Kanta Joshi, and four children, Kishor Joshi, Shobhna Joshi, Pratima Sharma and Laxmikant Joshi.
Kaku Maharaj landed in Dubai back in 1962 and was well-known for his generosity of having fed many Indians back in the 1960s and 1970s who came to the emirate while looking for a job. He started out working in a mess as a chef. He brought his other siblings to Dubai to help him in his work and earn a livelihood. As time went by, his culinary skills became well-known among the Bhatia community.
Members of the community suggested he open a restaurant and so in 1968, the Joshi Restaurant and Café came into existence. Kaku Maharaj and his siblings started the restaurant at first in Bur Dubai. It was the only restaurant that served Indian vegetarian food in Dubai back then.
According to Bharat Chachara, 50, CEO, India Club, the restaurant was initially located in a villa opposite Al Fahidi Plaza. “The story goes that people would come all the way from Deira to eat at the restaurant as the food was that good. As the Indian community started to grow and more people came to live in Dubai, the restaurant’s menu expanded. In fact, when there was any Indian wedding there would be two food counters — one serving Bhatia cuisine and another serving five-star menu. Everyone would gather around Kaku Maharaj’s food counter as he had magic in his finger. He was an exceptional chef,” said Chachara.
For the record, Joshi Restaurant and Café completed 50 years in 2018 and operates even today, renowned for its thalis (traditional Indian platters) and snacks. The thali consisted of vegetable curries, lentil gravy, rice, bread and yoghurt and cost 10 Indian rupees, as back in the 1960s, when the UAE dirham was not yet in force.
Veteran Indian businessman and textile magnate Vasu Shroff also recalled the senior Kaku Maharaj fondly. “He was a very friendly and warm person. He was a gentle soul and loved to cook for the Indian community. There was no occasion where we did not partake in his exemplary cuisine. He will be missed by the Indian community.”
A community pays tribute
“I was perhaps 14 years old when my father first took me to his small VC [the mess in which Kaku Maharaj began his journey], which was located close to the Bur Dubai temple,” recalled the 53-year-old Dinesh Khiara. “That tiny single room was far removed from the two restaurants that are operated by his family today.”
Describing the humble surroundings that included a single lamp and a few benches, for Khiara, a whole new world of taste and treats opened up for him following that single visit. “We paid for Dh4 for a thali and feasted like kings,” he continued.
Khiara also went on to reveal that few knew of Kaku Maharaj’s charitable side. “He was a gem, a UAE pioneer. There’s no other way to describe him. Kaku Maharaj was not one to ever look for publicity, but rather used his skills to help the community at large. I personally know several individuals who were offered free meals at his restaurant for months when they lost their jobs,” Khiara added.
India Club’s Bharat Chachara recalled his own personal equation with Kaku Maharaj when he was struggling to publish his book on Thattai Bhatia cuisine. “I had reached out to Kaku and he very graciously cooked up the dishes I needed to be photographed for my book and never charged me a penny. In fact, he would be the first to step up and lend a helping hand when someone from the community reached out.”
Such was Kaku Maharaj’s fame that even celebrity chef Vineet Bhatia found his way into the bylanes of Bur Dubai to sample Joshi Restaurant’s humble thali. “Simple but utterly delicious thali at Kaku Maharaj. Divine,” was his post on Instagram, with images of a hearty meal.
Ask members of the community and many agree that Bhatia weddings will lose their lustre in the years to come without Kaku Maharaj’s meals gracing the occasion. “We would see scores of guests making a beeline for his food at Bhatia weddings, eager to grab a kachori or a bowl full of curry, while completely overlooking a hotel’s in-house catering; such was his gift,” narrated Shyam Bhatia.
However, perhaps one of the biggest blows will be felt by the thousands who cross the threshold of the Krishna Temple in Dubai’s Bastakiya neighbourhood and have never walked away without Kaku Maharaj’s precious sweets that are offered as Prasad (offerings) or the annual Ankut (community meal), which is served every Diwali.
“We have known Kaku Maharaj’s family for three generations, long before they moved to Dubai,” recalled Lalit Karani, Chairman of the Bur Dubai Krishna Temple and the Mercantile Hindu Community of Thattha (Sindh). The 75-year-old continued: “His father Paman bhai used to travel from Kandivali to our home in Kemps Corner to cook up feasts on occasions, but Kaku would always say that he truly learnt cooking by working for my aunt, Padmini Bhabhi.”
Loved to cook
A common sentiment shared by all who knew Kaku Maharaj was the love that he poured into his cooking. “No matter what the occasion or the number of guests, Kaku Maharaj’s food never ran out. He would over compensate at events, always ensuring no one turned away without a meal.”
Karani also described his memories of watching Kaku Maharaj prep for the annual Ankut at the Krishna Temple in Dubai, a day where thousands of people would cross the threshold to feast on a meal cooked by the renowned chef. “The preparations would start a week in advance but on the morning of the feast, he would quietly make his way to the temple at 6am and start cooking the curry, boiling it for hours to perfection, while getting his team to help create the delicacies that would soon be sampled by temple visitors.”
For Jigna Suresh, a former resident who now lives in the US, a trip to Dubai would be incomplete without visiting Kaku Maharaj’s Joshi Restaurant. “I would land in Dubai and demand to eat his kachoris (flaky dumplings stuffed with spicy potatoes),” she said, adding that her trip back to the US would include a corner in her suitcase packed with delicacies he would whip up in his kitchen.
“Our tables have lost their flavour without Kaku Maharaj,” she stated.